I love Elvis, and despite the politics, feel he really helped to change culture. Of course he got a lot of his ideas, verve, dancing, and more from growing up in the South and attending gospel performances at African American churches, and also from being inspired by black performers like Little Richard and more. But he also mixed this with hillbilly and country music, and many different influences (and he hopefully also payed homage to all of these influences then and in later life rather than merely being a colonialist!) and is a complex figure, but also tried his best to be a good person (who gave back generously) of course was one of the major figures to give birth to Rock n’ Roll, changing the world in so doing. Buddhists believe in the idea of the Manjusri, or teaching Buddha, and feel (I believe!) that Buddhas can also be non-religious, who as extra special people can be teachers that make the world a better place. Art is about teaching, and I think the greatest of artists help to teach a culture to understand and express itself better. Elvis certainly did this, and in his incredible music (inspired by James Dean!) helped to give youth a voice and a means of expression in a particularly American way that spread throughout the cultural universe.
At the birth of his fame, in 1956, no one had seen anything quite like Elvis—in this painting, derived from a black and white photo from one of his first public concerts, the manager in the back with his hand on his mouth is looking quite pensive, as the audience in the high school gymnasium was going WILD and no one had ever seen a performer generate such an incredible display of excited, transformative exaltation before, and quite frankly, it scared him and so many others. Elvis was religious, however, and I think he might really have felt that he was destined to bring his message and voice to the people, and in painting this, realized that the lights in the background were almost like the “Father and Holy Spirit” and Elvis almost like the “son”, with his mike stand forming a cross with the neck of his guitar. I also love Warhol, but feel that Warhol might have been on the spectrum of ASD—like people who have Aspergers (and I have had many students on the spectrum!) they can be geniuses, and certainly Warhol was a genius, but aren’t necessarily “touchy feely” people, and have different ways of portraying emotion. When Warhol painted his Elvis pictures, they were dynamic and great, and like Elvis wanting to be like Dean on the silver screen, painted on silver, made him an iconic avatar, like the religious icons of the past, but in a more emotionally muted tone than when Fra Angelico made his iconic pictures of saints with gilding behind them. Loving Rembrandt, and the emotions that you synaesthetically feel when looking at his paintings, I think that if you can have the cultural relativity of Warhol, mixed in with the painterly emotions of Rembrandt, maybe you can have something new. Whereas Warhol flattened in his silk-screens great cultural heroes (in the same manner that in a post-modern paradigm Capitalism can reify agency, or “flatten out, like flour in pizza dough, who we are as people and spirits in the Capitalist machine”) and made them into non-human icons, I want to be able to bring out the REAL people and the REAL emotions that these geniuses generated in their cultural revolutions, to pay homage to them in historical paintings that also exalt the spirit of who they were as cultural creators. I’m hoping that in this seminal moment captured on film, that I can bring about the energy that was happening in this recorded moment of a time that changed history.
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Andy Warhol, Elvis 1 and Elvis 2, offset lithograph, 1976.